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Jan 24, 2024

The Meaning Behind Different Types of Coughs

Dealing with the occasional cough is not usually a big deal. In fact, most people don’t even consciously recognize when they cough. Most of the time, a cough is pretty harmless and not worth concern, but more severe cases are worth being aware of and can raise alarm, such as chronic coughing. Visit or contact TrueCare if you are noticing a cough more often than usual, it starts to cause pain or discomfort, or anything else that makes you feel concerned about your cough.

Different Types of Coughs

Depending on the cause of the cough and the related symptoms, the way you go about treating the cough will vary. Before you can determine the cause of your cough, it’s important to be able to identify the type of cough that you have. Here are the most common different types of coughs and their related symptoms.

Dry Cough

This cough actually sounds dry—nothing comes up with the cough and these coughs are considered “unproductive.” This type of cough is usually the least severe, and it can occur randomly or persistently. It may disrupt sleep and it may lead to a headache or even a sore throat, but that’s likely due more to the cough itself than an underlying issue. These dry coughs are usually caused by some sort of irritation to the throat, such as smoke, allergens, or pollution. Dry coughs are also commonly associated with colds or the flu, but they can also be caused by allergies, acid reflux, and medications.

Wet Cough

A wet cough usually produces some sort of mucus as you cough. You should spit this mucus out, if possible, since swallowing it can lead to a stomachache or vomiting. Wet coughs are usually caused by an infection of some sort, such as a cold or the flu, and they are your body’s way of getting rid of the excess mucus that the infection created. Asthma can also be a cause of a wet cough, but if you are also experiencing congestion, a runny nose, a sore throat, or a fever, it’s pretty safe to say you simply have a cold or respiratory infection. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) typically results in a wet cough as well, and this can occur even when your lungs are not especially irritated.


Kids get croup more often than adults, and it results in a barking sound during the cough. It’s caused by a viral infection and usually brings swelling and inflammation to the windpipe, which is the cause of the distinctive sound of a croup cough. Croup is usually accompanied by a raspy voice, trouble breathing, and sometimes a fever. Although croup can sound scary, it doesn’t usually require a doctor’s visit, but if you are concerned that your child is struggling to breathe, contact your provider. Generally, the best course of action for croup is sitting in a steamy bathroom and doing other things to help relieve inflammation and open up the airways.

If you are looking for a provider, TrueCare welcomes new patients at any of our local TrueCare health centers.

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Uncontrollable Coughing

Fits of coughing are called paroxysmal coughing, and they are usually uncontrollable, violent, and painful. Whooping cough falls into this category, but asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), tuberculosis, and pneumonia can also cause paroxysmal coughing. Whooping cough is the most serious of these different types of coughs, and it is characterized by deep, fast coughing that gets worse at night and that is followed by a deep inhale that often makes a “whoop” sound. Whooping cough can lead to oxygen deprivation as people have a hard time catching their breath from the uncontrollable coughing fits caused by it. Regardless of the cause of your uncontrollable coughing fits, a doctor’s visit is an important part of overcoming this ailment and experiencing relief and healing from your cough.

How to Identify Which Type of Cough

Now that you know the characteristics of each type of cough and the related symptoms, it should be a little easier to identify the type of cough that you or your child may be experiencing. Generally, dry and wet coughs are the easiest to identify. Croup and whooping cough can be a little more challenging, but you should listen for the distinctive sounds that each of those coughs results in. Remember that croup coughs bring about a barking sound, while whooping cough results in a “whoop” sound after the cough is over and the individual is breathing in. If you aren’t certain what type of cough you or your child is experiencing, you may wish to see a provider. Knowing when to see a doctor for a cough can be challenging, but know that we will never turn you away if you are seeking to improve your own health or the health of those you love, even if the cough is not serious.

Causes of Coughs

The purpose of a cough is to help clear the airway in your body. A cough by that definition is a helpful mechanism that your body usually does automatically. What causes coughing can vary from person to person and situation to situation, but it comes down to the body automatically trying to clear the airway for you. There are a variety of different “types of coughs” which can indicate other issues worth looking at.

  • Allergens & Irritants – Sometimes a cough begins just because your throat or sinuses are irritated. It’s not a sign of any health concern, sickness, or disease, but it is simply your body’s way of trying to get the allergen or irritant out. Even if you’re not allergic to things like pollen, dust, animal dander, and mold, they can still bring about coughing, either for a short period of time or for several days. Irritants can include smoke (tobacco or from a grill or fire), pollution, chemical fumes, perfumes, air fresheners, and anything else that you may inhale from the environment or another person.
  • Postnasal Drip – Sounding like either a dry or wet cough, this type of cough is caused by mucus dripping down your throat, often due to a cold or allergies. You may have a postnasal drip type of cough if it worsens at night, with a tickly feeling at the back of your throat. You may also notice itchy eyes and sneezing more often than with other coughs.
  • Asthma – A dry cough ending with a wheeze or rattle, most commonly due to inflamed airways, is common among people who have asthma. This can cause the process of coughing to be more uncomfortable or painful than usual and can even lead to difficulty breathing. An asthma type of cough is even more noticeable at night or while exercising, and it is commonly accompanied by chest tightness, fatigue, and shortness of breath.
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) – Acid from the stomach can sometimes come back up through the esophagus, resulting in a dry, spasmodic cough. GERD is the second most common cause of chronic cough. You may have GERD if your cough gets worse when lying down or just after eating.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – This is characterized by a chronic, hacking cough. You’ll notice a lot of mucus, especially in the mornings. The most common cause of COPD is smoking, but it can also be caused by other things, like air pollution, exposure to cooking fuels, or exposure to other chemicals or fumes. Other symptoms that you may notice are shortness of breath, wheezing, fatigue, and chest tightness as the day progresses or as a result of physical activity.
  • Medication-related Cough – Certain medications can cause a chronic cough. The most common ones are ACE inhibitors for the treatment of high blood pressure, but other common medications that may cause a cough include beta-blockers, NSAIDs, and calcium channel blocks. These types of cough are generally on the drier side and you may notice that coughing begins as early as a few weeks after beginning those medications.
  • Pneumonia – This cough usually starts off dry and then transitions to being wet. It is usually very frequent and is accompanied by mucus, which is usually yellow, green, and/or red. You may notice that you have a fever, difficulty breathing, pain when breathing in deeply, chills, and other symptoms.
  • Whooping Cough (Pertussis) – This type of cough sounds particularly severe, with a hacking sound that ends with a “whooping” sound as you breathe in. You may notice other symptoms including watery eyes, a fever, stuffy/runny nose, and more. Whooping cough treatment is usually handled with antibiotics.

Cough Treatments

The type of cough that you have will require a specific type of treatment. Most coughs are not serious or severe, and the majority of them will go away on their own. But if you find the cough annoying or painful, or you just want it to go away sooner, you do have some options. Some over-the-counter medication may be available as a cough treatment, while other coughs may require an antibiotic or other medication. The underlying cause of the cough will need to be diagnosed before a treatment can be determined.

Cough treatments vary based on the different types of coughs. You can try a number of at-home remedies to ease the annoyance of coughing.

  • Drinking warm beverages like tea or hot water with lemon or honey (NOTE: NEVER give honey to a child under 1 year of age; talk to your pediatrician)
  • Staying hydrated by drinking water and other low-sugar drinks
  • Consuming ginger, which can reduce inflammation
  • Using cough drops and lozenges
  • Using a humidifier or diffuser
  • Taking over the counter cough suppressant or mucus reducers
  • Using a saline wash to clear out your sinuses
  • Taking a hot shower or breathing in the steam from a hot shower

Treating your cough at home will usually do the trick. While the general recommendation for dry and wet coughs is about two weeks before you make an appointment, whooping cough and other uncontrollable coughs may need attention much sooner.

Visit TrueCare for Cough Treatment

If you or your child has a cough, it can be extremely frustrating. Not only is coughing just very unenjoyable and annoying, but it can be really challenging to get to the root cause and understand the severity of the cough, as well as to know when to see a doctor for a cough. In general, a cough is a good thing. It’s a sign of health as it is your body’s way of getting something out that shouldn’t be there. Sometimes, however, a cough is an indication that something more serious is going on that needs to be treated.

Here at TrueCare, we are passionate about educating and serving our local communities with top-notch health care services, and we always prioritize your health and your needs. We want to get you back on the road to health so you can live a happy, healthy, and full life. If you want to understand the differences between different types of coughs, learn how to identify which type of cough you’re experiencing, and know when to see a doctor for a cough, you have come to the right place.

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The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images, and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you read on this website.

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Jessica L. Randalls, PA
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